NEW YORK (AP) — As officials debate whether to close down Rikers Island, New York City's massive jail complex, 10 correction officers are about to stand trial on charges that they savagely beat an inmate after he stared down a corrections chief.
Authorities say the June 11, 2012, attack on Jahmal Lightfoot started after officers — responding to two slashings at the sprawling complex — began searching inmates, tossing over mattresses and rifling around cells for contraband.
During the search, Lightfoot made eye contact with Eliseo Perez, the jail's assistant chief of security. Angered by the stare-down, Bronx prosecutors say, Perez shouted out to a captain and five officers that Lightfoot "thinks he's tough" and should be attacked.
Lightfoot was brought into a small cell and was pummeled so severely by five officers that he was left with two fractured eye sockets, a broken nose and injuries to his face that caused his eyes to swell shut, prosecutors said.
Perez, a captain and eight other officers are expected to face trial next week on a 53-count indictment that includes attempted gang assault, evidence tampering and other charges. A judge presiding over the case in the Bronx issued a gag order Wednesday prohibiting the attorneys in the case from commenting.
"I just want justice for my son," Lightfoot's mother, Margaret Burton, said after seeing the officers in court Wednesday.
Prosecutors allege that the officers cooked up a plan on how to explain Lightfoot's injuries and wrote false use-of-force reports and witnesses statements that claimed Lightfoot had slashed an officer with a sharpened piece of metal. Three of the officers are accused of aiding in a cover-up.
Seven of the officers, who had been suspended after their arrests in 2013, were sent back to work earlier this month but remain on modified duty, a spokeswoman for the city's correction department said. She said they would not have any contact with inmates.
The trial comes on the heels of New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito's announcement of a commission to study the fate of the 400-acre island that houses most of New York City's 10,000 inmates. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the jail complex is dated, dangerous and should be replaced. Mayor Bill de Blasio, also a Democrat, has said the call to close Riker is "noble" but said it would raise major financial and logistical issues.
The city's Department of Investigation also conducted several probes into violence and contraband smuggling in the jail system. Another probe found systemic problems with the correction department hiring system, including allowing an alarmingly high number of hires who had arrest records, gang ties or other red flags that are markers for corruption.
This story has been corrected to show the name of the assistant security chief is Eliseo Perez, not Elsio Perez.